Following a staggering seven-year turnaround in form, the Black Caps have arrived in Southampton to take on India for the World Test Championship final. Michael Appleton has been thinking about it a lot. These questions especially.
The inaugural World Test Championship final starts on Friday. It will feature probably the best cricket teams that India and New Zealand have ever produced. The final will be played in Southampton over five days – or six if required in the event of rain.
As I’ve written in The Spinoff previously, if the Black Caps win the final it’ll complete one of the most remarkable comeback stories in the history of sport. Just seven years ago, the Black Caps were ranked eighth in the test cricket world – ahead of just Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Winning the final would make the Black Caps the first ever World Test Champions. It would also cement their number one test ranking.
The stakes are big.
But what should Black Caps fans be fretting about in the lead-up to the final? Here are five burning questions that will be preoccupying me in these final few days.
1. Will the captains stand up?
One curious aspect of the run-in to the final is that arguably the greatest batter in the history of New Zealand and Indian cricket respectively – Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli – don’t look in great nick.
Williamson has not scored a test 50 in his last nine innings away from home, doing very poorly in our three most recent tours – to England, Australia and Sri Lanka (averaging 10.6 compared to his career average away from New Zealand of 44.6). He has also been nursing an elbow injury, which was enough of a concern to see him miss the Edgbaston test.
Kohli is also suffering a lean trot. He hasn’t scored a test century in his last 12 test innings home and away (a period in which he’s averaged 24.0 compared to his career average of 52.4). This is one of the longest dry periods in his career.
Both captains were also absent when their sides won their recent historic series victories, in Brisbane and Birmingham respectively.
So which captain will step up with the bat in the final? One interesting precedent is the last knockout match between these two sides: the 2019 Cricket World Cup semi-final at Manchester.
In that one-day game, Williamson made a crucial 67. Kohli played around a straight one from Trent Boult early on, was trapped in front, dismissed for one and became part of a calamitous and ultimately fatal top order collapse.
Kohli, the hypercompetitive Indian captain, will not want history to repeat itself. Can he turn things around and score some serious knockout match runs?
2. What should the winner of the toss do (and what’s a good score)?
As Southampton has had only six previous test matches, not much can be inferred from history.
Five of the six captains to win the toss have chosen to bat first. They’ve won twice and lost once after doing so. (The one captain to field first saw a draw eventuate.)
The first innings score in the six Southampton tests have ranged from 184 to 583. India have played in Southampton twice, and lost both tests chasing – once by 266 runs after England scored 569 batting first in 2014, and the other by 60 runs after England made 246 in the first innings in 2018.
What the captain does at the toss will likely be weather dependent.
3. Will it rain, and will the pitch turn?
The fact the WTC final is being played in Southampton is not exactly a good omen. Fully half of Southampton’s six test matches to date have been ruined by rain. These three rain-affected drawn tests lost four sessions, two days & three and a half days of play respectively to rain.
At the time of writing, the UK Met Service weather forecast is suggesting there will almost certainly be some rain during the final. Thunderstorms are forecast for the final’s opening day – and there’s a non-trivial chance of rain on each day of the test. The question is how much rain there will be, and whether the sixth day available to finish the game in the event of inclement weather will offset the time lost to rain enough to keep the match viable. Bookies consider a draw fairly likely (~25-30% chance), I suspect partly due to the expected weather.
WTC weather watch, 2 days out
Day 1 forecast terrible, rest largely unchanged.
Highest chance of rain b/w 11am & 6pm (change in last 36 hours):
Day 1: 97% midday (+39)
Day 2: 4% 11am (-13)
Day 3: 34%, 11am (+6)
Day 4: 30%, 4pm (+7)
Day 5: 18%, 11am (+3)
Day 6: 19%, 3pm (n/c) https://t.co/lieNsGA6Gg
— Michael Appleton 🇳🇿🤝🇱🇰🇲🇻🏏🗳 (@michelappleton) June 16, 2021
One important consequence of rain (and cloudy conditions) could be to scramble the equation for the two sides’ bowling attacks. Rain and cloud will favour swing bowling and potentially dull the impact of the spinners; sunny, fine, hot weather will likely lengthen the game (in terms of overs bowled), making spinners more of a factor towards the end. Because India have two of the best spinners in the world in Ashwin and Jadeja, hot weather and clear skies would be massively in their favour. Wet and cloudy weather would on balance benefit New Zealand – because while both sides have strong pace attacks, India’s spin duo would be blunted.
While we only have a small sample size, spinners have tended to do better at Southampton than the average English test ground. Since 2010, test spinners have averaged 34.6 at Southampton, 37.1 at Edgbaston & 38.9 at Lord’s.
4. How will India adapt to English conditions?
New Zealand have just shown an ability to adjust to English conditions. But for a day of rain at Lord’s, they likely would have whitewashed England 2-0 in the just completed series. This was the first series win by a touring side to England in seven years.
By contrast, India do not have a good recent record in England – or indeed at Southampton. It has been India’s batting that’s been particularly patchy there.
Since 2010, India have scored fewer test runs per wicket lost in England (25.5) than in any other country. Only Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ireland have managed fewer runs in England per wicket lost in this time. (New Zealand average 30.1 runs per wicket in England across the same period.)
India’s four test innings scores at Southampton have been modest to poor: 330, 273, 184, 178.
India also start slowly in England. On their last six tours of England going back to 1990, they’ve not won a single first test, losing four and drawing two. You have to go back to 1986 to find a first test they won in England.
So one crucial question is: will India’s batters, who played so fantastically well in Australia last summer in the second half of that series, be able to adapt well to English conditions on their first day of competitive batting on this tour?
5. Who will win?
This is the Black Caps’ third world final in six years. They got smashed by Australia in Melbourne in 2015 and then tied the match but lost the title by the “barest of margins” to England at Lord’s in 2019. Those were both finals that New Zealand were expected to lose – primarily because they were playing in their opponent’s home conditions. In 2019, they had also had indifferent form throughout the tournament.
This final is different. New Zealand are not the clear underdog, they are playing at a neutral venue, and have just shown that they can perform effectively in English conditions. Of the three finals, this is certainly the one they’re best suited and most likely to win. Bookmakers continue to avoid installing either side as strong favourites – reflecting the fact that there are compelling factors which favour each.
I don’t know if we will topple the best Indian cricket team there has ever been in the World Test Championship final in the coming week. I do know that it’s the best chance the Black Caps have ever had of winning a major world title, that they’ve confounded their doubters (including me!) before, and that they’ve had a dream preparation for the final.
Now all that’s left is to do all the things that have characterised the golden McCullum/Williamson era of New Zealand cricket: be prepared, make the absolute most of the resources you have available, and dare to believe that any prize in world cricket is within your grasp.
The Black Caps’ seven-year comeback story gets its most consequential and potentially most exhilarating chapter this coming week. Here’s hoping for a happy ending.